Speciesisminart AlexVanGelder

Yesterday I visited Hauser & Wirth, Savile Row to see Alex Van Gelder’s Meat Portraits. The artist spent a year photographing the dismembered remains and discarded animal body parts found in a slaughterhouse in Benin. The press release says that he ‘upends traditional notions of portraiture’ but this is slightly confusing as Van Gelder says that he considers these photographs to be still lives, maybe it is more difficult to upend traditional notions of still life.  Sometimes he will photograph the body parts as he finds them on the market floor other times he will arrange them into a composition. In common with taxidermy artists, Van Gelder also likes to inject a ‘playful turn’ into his animal compositions with entrails reconstructed to form a face or an image that looks like rags in a bowl. This playfulness suggests a certain complicity with the slaughterhouse which made me wonder what motivated him to transform the dismembered and disembowelled animals into art.

As I was considering the photographs a beautiful, real-life, black dog came bounding into the gallery, I thought the young man invigilating would try to calm the dog but instead he took the ball from the dog’s mouth and threw it for her to catch. It soon became apparent that the dog knew the invigilator, and the dog’s owner, a well-dressed woman, was a senior member of staff. Everyone in the gallery loved the dog and wanted to play with it, no longer interested in what was on the walls. Another woman gallery goer said to the dog (but loud enough for us all to hear), ‘you are a piece of art yourself’, and repeated herself,  ‘you’re just as much a piece of art as anything else here, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise’. It was strange because although it was seemingly meant as a complement to the dog, it was as if the woman was saying that art in general was somehow above animals, but in this case the dog had achieved the status of art. The dog however, was impatient with the pep talk and wanted to get back to playing, the scene reminded me of a passage in ‘Six Years’ where Lucy Lippard explains how she turned down an award for ‘honorary artist’ because she was happy enough with her status as a writer.